"How do I look?" she asked.
"Really? You think that's at all a necessary question for you?"
"Princess, you look fine."
"Daddy?" Jenny said.
"Princess," she said, pointing at herself. Of course, it didn't sound at all like Princess, but he knew what she was saying well enough by now.
"Yes, you are Daddy's Princess, but Mommy is, too." He'd sort of gotten out of the habit of calling Claire that the past couple of years for just that reason. "And both of Daddy's princesses look just fine. More than fine. They'll be the best looking girls there, making me the luckiest Daddy there."
"Why am I more nervous than you are?" she asked.
"I have no idea. I suppose some could say spending the last two years as a lieutenant working Violent Crimes has prepared me for just about anything. Anything includes my sister's graduation. There's nothing to be nervous about. What's to be worried about anyway? It's breakfast."
She sighed softly. "Nothing. It's just a big deal. She's graduating and she's bringing me to see everyone."
"Well, of course it's a big deal. Eighteen years ago when I first saw her I never would have imagined the both of us coming this far."
"You're right. You've done an amazing job with her."
"You've helped. A lot. Don't sell yourself short that having you in the picture the past seven years hasn't made a huge difference," he said. "She's had a woman to talk to about stuff she's just better off not having to talk to me about."
Like boyfriends. Never mind the female issues that John was glad he'd gotten out of. He would have rather had to deal with those than the ones about boys. John was so glad he had to skip those conversations because he knew he'd be sorely tempted to pistol whip anyone who broke his sister's heart. Those conversations always stayed private, too, to a point. Sure, Claire would share bits and pieces, highlights so he'd know what was going on in Liz's life but overall what was said between the two of them stayed there. It made Liz trust Claire, and in the end him too because she knew he wouldn't push for information she clearly didn't want him to have. He thought they'd gotten through her teenaged years pretty well compared to some other families out there. He thoroughly believed the reason was the fact that there was trust in their house.
She seemed to escape high school with her heart fairly well intact, too. A couple of breakups, but none were jerks about it and the two boyfriends she had before the guy she was seeing now still came around the house sometimes when she had people over. John didn't understand that at all. He'd never been friends with someone he'd had any form of a relationship with afterward. John's version of relationships was vastly different than hers, of course, that probably made a difference. Then John had never been able to have people over to his house either growing up.
He'd been perhaps too lenient on that front over the years. If she asked, he'd said yes because he figured if he said no she'd just take her plans to someone else's house. And, well, he knew firsthand what it was like having a house you didn't want anyone to see. So, the fact that they had a home she wanted to bring people to let him know he was doing all right.
"Speaking of differences. I'm looking forward to a week in New York under very different circumstances than I'm used to getting with you."
He usually hated their trips to New York. She knew that. Fashion Week was nothing short of his idea of a personal hell as far as he was concerned. Crowds of people. Crowds of privileged people. Crowds of rich people. Crowds of people who wanted to be close to those people for the remote chance that privilege and wealth might rub off on them.
She was 'on' every second of every day other than when they were in their hotel room together. Otherwise, from the time she woke up it was non-stop. Not just the attention she got either. And had that increased over the years, this past year she'd designed over a dozen dresses for various awards ceremonies alone. He still couldn't believe there was a market for people willing to pay that much money for her (or anyone) to design a dress they'd wear once. It kept her name out there, though, and it put lots of money in her bank account with relatively little effort compared to the stores she spent months working on an entire selection of clothes for. Also, though, beyond the attention was her mind, always working and improving on things that before she'd left Chicago she'd been happy with. He wouldn't want her any other way, though, always the perfectionist creating. She probably did create in her sleep, he just didn't know it.
"Yes. No deadlines. No formal dinners. No kissing someone's ass because they show a speck of interest in your work. No press conferences. No reporters hoping to catch one of the kids picking his or her nose or me making an ass of myself. This suit didn't cost me more than my first car."
"I think most anything costs more than your first car anymore."
"You're probably right. Either way, I'm looking forward to an actual vacation with you."
Their honeymoon was a ten-day trip to DisneyWorld. Liz had come along, so it wasn't much of a honeymoon as far as honeymoons went. That had been Claire's idea not John's. He had suggested asking her parents or one of her friend's parents to take her for the ten days. She hadn't wanted to leave Liz behind. She'd been old enough they were able to go out a few nights by themselves to Pleasure Island and stuff. That was the first and only vacation they'd had together. So, this week coming up in New York was a big deal to him. Of course they weren't going to New York alone either, but he was still looking forward to it. The times he'd gone with her were more frustrating than they should have been. That close to things to do, like seeing the Letterman Show, and being unable to do any of them.
"So are you ready then?"
"We'll meet you at the ceremony then, I guess."
"I know. Are you sure I look all right?"
"You look perfect. Is that why you're nervous?"
"Because it's the first time you're going to be in the boat I've been in for the past fourteen years. People are going to look at you and think you're her mom. Being a breakfast for the moms sort of implies it."
"Well, people thinking I'm her mom is nothing new. Not really."
He knew that because she'd been legally Elizabeth's mom now for about five years. Once they'd gotten married and talked about trying for their oldest, Anthony, they'd talked to her about some things. The conversation had gotten started when John said he wanted to make her a legal guardian in the event something happened to him or like the time she fell and had to go to the hospital, someone who could make decisions for her. He hadn't wanted her thinking with a baby potentially coming (not that they told her they were trying) that if something happened to John she'd get shipped off to their parents while the baby would stay in the house she'd grown up with Claire. Somehow, he still couldn't say to this day how, it had gotten turned into a conversation about Claire adding her name to Liz's documents.
Funny, just as with the initial custody case that got them where they were today her dad hadn't charged him for that case either. Very different reasons this go around, though. Since he knew several judges it hadn't taken more than a few minutes to get the process done, Claire and Liz both saying they wanted to do it was about the extent of it. John slept better at night after that, knowing if something happened to him through the course of his job his sister would stay here and Claire would take care of her. Now she was legally an adult so she wouldn't get put into their parents' home, but it still made John feel better knowing that Liz would have somewhere to belong and to call home in the event something happened to him. Especially now that he was working Violent Crimes. He wasn't stupid enough to believe he was impervious to a bullet or anything else. Gangs were an ever growing problem in the suburbs, their influence expanding beyond the city of Chicago's borders further and further every day it seemed.
"Yes, but most of those people, parents of her friends, knew her situation and that we weren't really. These people today won't, you know. It's all the moms of all the graduates."
"You think that bothers me?" she asked.
"I think some women who aren't even thirty-five yet would be bothered by a high school graduate being mistaken for their daughter."
"Yeah, well, let them think what they want. I have no problem being mistaken for her mom. I'm flattered she invited me to the breakfast at all."
"Well, I don't know. Because I'm not really her mom."
"You've been the closest thing she has."
"You've got to get going or you're going to be late. We'll be fine. Trust me."
"Yeah, I know, you've done all this before."
It bothered her to think of him raising Liz by himself for the most part all along, even when he was in high school doing all the things he did for her every day. He noticed her trying to take the bulk of the responsibility off his shoulders with Tony and Jenny. She said it was because he had the tougher, more physical job, which was true. She was successful enough now that she was able to design around their schedules. The weeks he worked late afternoons or evenings she started earlier and vice versa. There were times she was able to work from home if need be, which she probably did more than she had to until the kids were in school.
They were taking all three of the kids to New York for a week after Liz graduated. She'd be going to school out there in the fall at Columbia so they were going to get in all the tourist-like things they could along with taking a tour of the campus. Liz had gotten a tour with John in the spring when he took her to look at the campus, but Claire and the kids had stayed home that trip since they only went for two days. Liz was even going to babysit a couple of nights so he and Claire could take in a Broadway show, something they'd never done in all of their trips there yet. Her choice had been Phantom of the Opera, since he had no preference whatsoever he'd bought the tickets to the show she wanted to see. She'd promised him a night of Letterman, too, so a Broadway show he had absolutely no desire to see seemed like a fair trade off.
"Go," he said, kissing her. "I know it means a lot to Liz you're going with her."
"What?" he asked.
"I'm just trying to think of whether we've thought of everything for her party tomorrow."
"Claire. We've thought of everything. We have food. We have music. We have a huge cake that could feed an army. We have guests. And since we have a brand new addition on the house, we have plenty of space on the first floor for everyone. You know they're not going to all come at the same time, right? They'll go from party to party as they see fit, stay for a while and move on to the next party."
They'd lived with Claire's parents for about six months of the year last year while the second floor on the house was put on and the first floor was updated and renovated with new appliances, pipes, wiring, and flooring. He realized later it probably would've been cheaper for them just to have the house torn down and start from scratch. This had worked, though. They were able to move back in faster this way. Claire's parents were nice about it and all, but six months of them was about all the two of them could take. The kids? They loved being at Grandma and Grandpa's house for whatever reason, even Liz. A far cry from their first Thanksgiving there when she didn't even want to go.
"Then relax, and if you think of something we've missed I can run out and get it later."
"We can't serve the kids wine," he said with a chuckle.
"Not for them."
"I know what you meant. You won't need the wine. I promise. If I can get through tomorrow entirely sober seeing Jeff with her all day, so can you. You will have fun."
"I know. I don't know how my parents did this and we have to do it again."
"Not for years! Don't stress over something thirteen years before it's going to happen. Okay, guys, give Mommy a kiss, she's got to go see Elizabeth."
She knelt down and hugged and kissed both of them. Tony would be in Kindergarten next fall with Jen a few years behind him since she was only two. For whatever reason neither of them got their mom's hair. John had been hoping since Jen was a girl she'd at least have it.
"Hey," he said when she started toward the door.
"What? You're the one telling me how late I'm going to be."
Liz was going to the school with Abby and her mom. Mary's family had moved away during tenth grade so she wasn't here anymore. While Liz and Abby had both made other friends over the years they'd managed somehow to remain best friends. The boy, Tom, who'd snuck into their house had been gone from Abby's life pretty quickly. That wasn't the case with the guy sticking around her these days, the same went for Liz, too. It had taken her a while to bring anyone home to meet John officially as a boyfriend. She'd introduced the couple before Jeff as simply friends and it hadn't seemed to him like their relationship got much further than that anyway. He had to admit she'd managed to let him meet someone who seemed decent enough. He didn't entirely trust him, but that was the guy in John knowing what eighteen year old guys thought not based on any actions or behavior by Jeff himself. He was going to school out east at Yale, so for now they were talking about continuing to see one another when they could. Liz wouldn't have a car, there was no need for one in New York City. Jeff would, though.
He chuckled. "Do I get one of those, too?"
"Oh yeah," she said, leaning in and kissing him.
She gave him a much better kiss than Tony and Jenny had gotten. She always did. Still to this day she kissed him as if he was the only guy in the world for her. He had no idea how many she'd kissed between that day of detention and the day Wayne had interviewed her, but he knew she hadn't kissed anyone since then.
"We are not having a third one yet," she said when she drew away.
"What? I wasn't even thinking…"
"You were, too. Liz is going to be out of the house. I can see that look in your eye now that Jenny's out of diapers."
"Yeah, there is that aspect to think about. I think I could go a year or so without having to change another one."
"Another year at least."
"I think I can wait another year."
"You are the one that said I was going to get fat from having too many kids, remember?"
"That was assuming they were going to be someone else's kids. They're my kids so you're going to be just fine."
"I am, huh? Why exactly?"
"Yes, because you know I'm going to chase you in the hope of having another one."
"That only works if I don't want to get caught, John."
"There is that," he said with a chuckle. "You look more than fine."
"Thank you," she said.
"All right, guys, let's get ourselves some breakfast while Mommy and Liz get to eat."
It was weird looking at Tony, thinking he was the age Liz was when he'd gotten custody of her. He had no idea how he did it looking back now. Hard work and perseverance he supposed, an unwillingness not to fail. For her sake, not for his. He hadn't really cared what happened to him. He'd only cared about keeping her safe. They'd managed somehow and he had to admit she'd turned out pretty okay despite it all. She hadn't mentioned their parents in years. She'd introduced him to the few people at Columbia as her dad, which was fine with him. He had to admit if he could handpick a daughter, she'd be his first choice.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com